Travel advisory company iJet is growing fast, and chief technology office Greg Meyer is not going to let technology slow it down. The firm specialises in providing intelligence to large organisations and financial institutions on political, economic and geographic hazards all over the world - from car bombings in Baghdad to yellow fever outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa.
"Our entire business rests on getting critical information to people in minutes," Meyer says. "The business can only survive if our intelligence is reliable, objective and fast." To help achieve these goals, iJet has deployed Fujitsu Software's Interstage business process management (BPM) technology to help manage and automate the process of getting intelligence from the company's 2,500 stringers (correspondents) to 400 customers, which include the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The process begins with an e-mail from a stringer on the ground. This report is then edited by a team in London before being passed to external agencies for approval. Agencies might include anyone from doctors and lawyers to financiers or geology experts. Next, the source of the intelligence is verified and advice is produced for anyone affected by the report. "If we are advising people on how to react to the symptoms of a new disease, or to avoid a neighbourhood where a car bomb has just exploded, we had better be sure we have got it right," Meyer says.
There more than 60 steps involved in the process and this originally took up to four hours to complete - by which time stories might already have appeared on news wires, dramatically reducing the value of iJet's service. Using BPM to automatically move alerts through the approval process has drastically reduced this. Urgent notices can now be sent out within five minutes of the initial report. "When people log on to their computers, they see a list of work that is colour coded for priority," says Meyer. "They do not need to know anything about the underlying software."
The need for fast and accurate processes applies to virtually any business. In an ideal world, businesses would be able to automate all their routine processes and change them at a moment's notice in response to circumstances. In reality, many companies are stuck with inefficient processes because changing the underlying computer systems is too complex, says Chris Phillips, European marketing director at BPM supplier Tibco. "In many cases, processes are hardwired into your ERP system or your financial system and you cannot get in there to make the changes you want without a lot of effort."
BPM software seeks to address this by abstracting business processes and describing them at a higher level. A BPM tool will act like a sergeant major in your IT infrastructure, prompting people and applications to perform certain actions in the right order and at the right time. If you want to change a process, simply instruct the BPM system to issue prompts in a different order or manner.
The concept of BPM is not new. It has its roots in workflow technology, but suppliers of integration software, document management and enterprise applications are also converging on the market, says Ian Charlesworth, senior research analyst at Butler Group. "There are probably 200 suppliers claiming to offer BPM technology and the market is becoming massively over-hyped," he says.
Defining BPM can therefore be tricky. Workflow suppliers will naturally focus on how BPM can automate processes, and integration suppliers will concentrate on BPM's ability to communicate with multiple underlying systems. What all BPM tools share is the ability to model a business process, to execute and monitor processes, and to provide a development environment with connectors to link into enterprise applications.
The initial value of BPM is how it can improve processes through automation, says Charlesworth. However, in the longer term, BPM's most significant benefit is allowing companies to respond more quickly to changing business needs without he need for involvement from the IT department. "Speeding up change management could be an enormous benefit for organisations, and that is where the real return on investment will come from," Charlesworth says.
MSB Recruitment recouped its £100,000 investment in BPM technology in less than one year by freeing up sales staff from administrative tasks. It deployed Metastorm BPM software in 2002 to help automate the process of taking orders from new clients. "Originally, the process included printing out forms, getting the right people to approve the placement and then making sure someone was billed or paid the right amount - and it could take hours," says Robert Marston, MSB's infrastructure manager. "That was the time we wanted the salesman to be out selling."
Using BPM software, MSB was able to create a model of the order approval process, streamline it and then automate it. Today, it takes just three minutes to process an order and only 30 seconds of the salesperson's time.
However, modelling a process to automate is not always straightforward. MSB spent three months and £50,000 working with consultants to define its core business processes and identify those that could be improved through automation. The consultants visited every department and asked staff to outline their processes. Their responses were used to compile a single master document of the entire process. "That did not really work," says Marston. Staff often forgot vital steps in a process or could not agree on standardised ways of working.
Eventually, MSB rolled out the BPM software one step at a time so that it was easier to identify the next step in the process. This approach worked well and MSB has now extended its use of BPM software to cover 26 other processes in the business.
Another challenge for IT departments is knowing which of the many BPM suppliers best meet the needs of their business. Start-ups such as Fuego focus strongly on BPM, but integration suppliers such as Tibco and Webmethods are beginning to market their offerings. Even enterprise application suppliers such as SAP and Siebel are introducing workflow and BPM into their products.
The best advice is to carefully consider a potential supplier's history, says David McCoy, research director at analyst firm Gartner. It may be that the process you are looking to manage is largely manual, in which case a workflow supplier may have the best technology. However, if your process involves linking together data from multiple platforms, you may be better off choosing a product from an integration specialist.
Often, your choice of supplier will be affected by your existing IT systems, says McCoy. "The problem is that some suppliers think it is their god-given right to have process management in their products, but they are not doing anything in a standardised way," he says. Gartner predicts that many companies will have eight or more different process management tools within a couple of years.
When the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency rolled out BPM technology to improve its handling of licence applications, the existing IT infrastructure was an important factor in choosing a supplier. The agency had recently replaced a 14-year-old IBM imaging system with a document management application from Tower Software, and it needed a BPM tool that could handle the data within scanned images.
The agency was also keen to invest in technology that would comply with XML and web services standards, says Anita Evans, project and programme improvement manager at the DVLA. "We did not want to have to replace anything two years down the line," she says.
Emerging standards for BPM technology, include Business Process Execution Language for Web Services (BPEL4WS), an XML-based language for modelling a business process which is backed by Microsoft and IBM. Alternatives include Business Process Modelling Language (BPML) and EBXML (Electronic Business Extensible Markup Language).
The emergence of web services has dramatically increased the growth of BPM technology as chief information officers attempt to control costs and improve efficiency. However, the benefits of BPM can sometimes be a little more unexpected. The BPM technology at the DVLA has reduced the time taken to process a driver's licence application from weeks to hours.
However, the agency did not quite achieve the anticipated reduction in call volume at its customer service centre. "We anticipated that the average time taken to handle calls would be shorter because we would have information at our fingertips," says Evans. "But actually, people are less frustrated with us on the phone and take the opportunity to ask more questions, so call length goes up. But I think that is a good thing."